Hurricane Katrina: Recovering from the Crisis

Crises occur in what is seemingly the most inconvenient times and often without warning. The impact of a crisis can have devastating effects on the stability and reputation of an organization or corporation if it is not handled appropriately. The decisions made in the critical moments within a crisis can determine the outcome. Strong and decisive leadership are essential for hopeful survival and recovery post-tragedy. Communication is another key element on which effective crisis management depends. Delivery of the wrong message or the passage of inaccurate data, status or progress can negatively influence the recovery effort. This paper will examine the relationship between sound decision making, effective communication and successful crisis response.

How Decision Makers Can Manage or Confound a Crisis? The pace of the recovery effort from crisis is determined by the leadership as the provider of the effort’s assignment and direction. In a crisis, decisive leadership is an essential component in survival through and recovery from a critical incident. Choices for direction are easy to make when the decider has all the data that he or she needs to make an informed decision. In crisis, this is not always possible. When all the information is not available, leaders must make the best call they can and adjust as the crisis plays out. These decisions must also be made in a timely manner so as not to compound existing problems with delayed action or no action at all. Prewitt and Weil suggest that “Decisive action is demanded immediately from organizational leaders due to globalization, organizational transparency, and technological advances” (Prewitt and Weil, 2014). Technology has made it so that the public can watch a crisis unfold right before their eyes. Real time response is covered by media outlets and instant feedback is given through social media. This type of access adds pressure to an already volatile situation. Prewitt and Weil stated that “leaders are required to endure intense public examination while weathering the disrupting forces of catastrophe” (Prewitt and Weil, 2014). According to Eric Stern, “Decision making refers to the fact that crises tend to be experienced by leaders (And those who follow them) as a series of ‘what do we do now’ problems triggered by the flow of events” (Stern, 2013). The answer to “what do we do now?” depends on the information gathered and accurate accounting of impact.

The decisions made by Michael Brown, former Undersecretary of Emergency Preparedness and Response, in the wake of hurricane Katrina, appeared to be ill-advised and poorly executed. It is possible, however, that the calls he made were sound, but perhaps based on an unclear or incomplete situational picture. His response plan was plagued by ‘wicked problems’, defined by Cameron Richards as those (problems) and also organizational as well as public policy challenges which may be complex and without or resistant to simple convenient solutions” (Richards, 2013). The prompt and regular coverage (transparency) of the event made it impossible for Brown to recover and maintain credibility and confidence with the American public. With so many details to manage, communication was paramount in the wake of and recovery from this extreme weather event.

Veil and Husted contend that “During crises, information is both essential and limited, (and also) difficult to obtain and relay” (Veil and Husted, 2012). Jamal and Abu Bakar state that “An authentic leader is expected to communicate the realities and possibilities to gain stakeholders trust and confidence (Bakar and Bakar, 2017). This is a difficult task to accomplish when details are missing, inaccurate or slowly reported. Span of control is highly dependent on communication and without it, failure is the likely outcome. Aside from trust and confidence, communication can also impact the reputation of an organization. The Situational Crisis Communication Theory (SCCT) was developed to aid leaders in making decisions that limit damage to their organization’s popular standing (Bakar, 2017). This theory suggests that the greater the reputational threat, the higher level of responsibility should be assumed.

Veil and Husted suggest the establishment of a communications network as a best practice. This network should be comprised of members at all organizational levels, outside agencies and the media (Veil and Husted, 2012). Poor communication, in any situation, is a key ingredient in a disastrous recipe, but even more so in crisis. In the case study of the response to hurricane Katrina, communication (or lack thereof) was highlighted as a major contributor in the failure of the initial effort. The Red Cross’ ineffective communication with local governments prior to the storm stalled their response post-storm and “handicapped local officials and the overall response effort” (Veil and Husted, 2012). The reputations of both FEMA and the Red Cross took a hit but over time and overall (with each successive disaster response) both agencies recovered.